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Casualties of the Class of '69

July, July, A Novel, Tim O'Brien, Houghton Mifflin: 322 pp., $26

November 03, 2002|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and is a contributing editor to Parade magazine.

For nearly 30 years, Tim O'Brien has been the bard of the baby boomers, chronicling the nightmares and anxieties of the generation that came of age during the 1960s. "I grew out of one war and into another," he wrote in his harrowing 1973 memoir of the Vietnam War, "If I Die in a Combat Zone." "Can a foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely having been there?" he asked then. "I think not. He can tell war stories."

O'Brien's war stories are his legacy, not only the memoir but also the National Book Award-winning novel "Going After Cacciato" (1978), a hallucinatory novel about a soldier who walks away from the Vietnam War and heads for Paris; and "The Things They Carried" (1990), which contains some of the best stories ever written about war.

O'Brien does not seem as sure-footed when his subject matter is the complexities of life back home for men haunted by the war or the battle of the sexes, in which the rules of engagement are as murky as those in Vietnam, with sudden betrayals, subterranean flare-ups and grenades lobbed from friendly corners. His sense of humanity does not seem to extend to his female characters, who are rarely as fully realized as his men.

His new novel, "July, July," brings together members of the Class of '69, who once dreamed of changing the world and are now slogging through the minefields of middle age, for a college reunion in a small town in Minnesota. "It was July 7, 2000, a humid Friday evening. The war was over, passions were moot, and the band played a slow, hollowed-out version of an old Buffalo Springfield tune. For everyone, there was a sense of nostalgia made fluid by present possibility."

The Class of '69 is suffering from more than nostalgia. There are its recent casualties (one classmate has been murdered, another has drowned) and its walking wounded (a Vietnam vet who has lost a leg, a breast cancer survivor, a heavy man with a failing triple bypass). There are the divorced and lonely, the married and adulterous. The class sexpot, whose menage is made up of two husbands and a younger lover, is on the verge of another breakdown. The draft dodger who fled to Canada still pines for the woman who was supposed to come with him. The atmosphere is saturated with regret, guilt and not-yet-satisfied urges. By the end of the weekend, with a little help from alcohol and drugs, the secrets come out, and the repercussions of life's choices hit with a vengeance.

"July, July" is taut and compelling, particularly in the chapters that tell individual stories, several of which have appeared in Esquire and The New Yorker. The reunion scenes are not as well fleshed out. And several of the female characters seem one-dimensional, distinguished primarily by body parts and marital status. (The two divorced women who function as a gossipy Greek chorus speak in unbelievably hard-bitten tones about such matters as the recent murder of their former roommate -- "Such a Karen sort of thing," Amy said. "Getting killed like that." -- and how much they lust for a man.)

Not surprisingly, David Todd, the Vietnam vet, with his lovelorn pursuit of his ex-wife Marla, is the best-drawn character. Flashbacks to July 1969, when he was wounded, crackle with tension. "The pain came and went. Sometimes it was nothing. Other times it exceeded physics." In 1969, David Todd makes a bargain with his morphine-induced inner devil, who suggests he die where he lies by the Song Tra Ky River because if he chooses to live, he'll never play baseball again and Marla will leave him.

This inner voice, in the persona of a radio announcer, presents O'Brien's version of the male/female dilemma in a nutshell: "Cut your losses. Check out. Right now, Davy, you don't know what wounded is. Wait'll the Marla war starts -- all that heartache. You're in for a world of hurt, my friend, and morphine won't do nothing." Despite the promise of pain, David chooses life. In this early loss of innocence, he gets a jump on his classmates. But by reunion time, all of them have realized that nobody gets out alive -- or unscarred.

Still, it is strange that in this portrait of a generation in its prime, O'Brien does not include a single character who has moved beyond the loss of innocence to a deeper, more subtle understanding of the complexities of choice or a character who shows leadership, wisdom or the generosity to feed back into the younger generations through family life or work. Although O'Brien has widened his range to an ensemble in "July, July," his choice of a moral vision based on high school-era stereotypes and post-traumatic defenses dilutes the power of his work. One would hope that next time around, he will move beyond these limits to use his enormous gifts to grapple more thoroughly with the considerable mysteries of adulthood.

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